- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2008

One cannot see the title of Carlos Fuentes‘ new short story collection and not think of Leo Tolstoy. However, while “Happy Families” takes as its epigraph the immortal first line from “Anna Karenina” - “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” - it could be argued that few of the families featured in Mr. Fuentes’ 16 stories are unequivocally happy and, of those, no two are really alike.

Nevertheless, what makes this collection a joy to read is that each tale is riveting and crucial to the book’s tapestry as a whole. Between stories about filial bonds, marital turmoil, revolution, child abuse, love and death are brief riffs of free-form verse. These are usually single-page commentaries that come between tales, with their speakers functioning as a Greek chorus. Characters in these interludes cry, mourn, agitate, celebrate life in modern Mexico, underscoring narratives that do the same. The translation by Edith Grossman, the prize-winning translator of works by major Spanish-language authors including Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, is a towering achievement that well serves Mr. Fuentes’ witty, ironic and often experimental play with language.

The stories take place in a variety of settings across Mexico. From the crowded corners of Mexico City to its suburbs, along with forays into rural areas’s, readers come away with a sense of having burrowed deep into that beautiful and troubled landscape. While earlier times in Mexico’s history are recalled, the stories for the most part take place between the 1940s and recent years. The focus throughout is on characters who are tied deeply to each other and their heritage, in some cases locked in quarrels but bound by love.

For me, the most accessible story and the most powerful, is “The Disobedient Son,” a tale that more than any other delivers unalloyed joy in its surprising ending. At the center of the story is a father and his four sons, each of whom he is pushing to be priests. The ultimate course of the sons’ lives and their father’s reaction makes for disarming reading and highlights the rewards of good parenting.

Other stories concern a conflicted priest who struggles to hide but also be a good father to his secret daughter, a mother who corresponds with her daughter’s killer, a sadistic husband and the forbearing wife who endures his taunts and a homely cousin who finds passion and love late and unexpectedly.

There is no getting around the fact that “Happy Families” often leaders readers to a world beset by drug traffickers, gangsters, aimless youth and trigger-happy mobs. And while none of the stories is forgettable, for my part the stories in which no one is violated or treated cruelly - notably “The Obedient Son” and “A Cousin Without Charm” -are the most satisfying.

Carlos Fuentes is the author of more than 20 books, including “The Eagle’s Throne,” “This I Believe,” “The Death of Artemio Cruz” and “The Old Gringo.” He served as Mexico’s ambassador to France from 1975 to 1977 and is the recipient of the National Prize in Literature (Mexico’s highest literary award) and the Cervantes Prize, among others.

At 72, his writing seems to have lost none of its power, and arguably has grown even more elegant and incisive. Still, there is a wistfulness here, a yearning for a simpler time and place, captured most poignantly in his story “Sweethearts,” in which former lovers meet, one having survived the kidnapping and murder of her son-in-law in Mexico City. As they stroll the beach in Acapulco the star-crossed lovers recall an earlier meeting there in the 1940s, a happier time:

“A small Acapulco, adolescent like them, half grown, always divided between hills and beach, poor and rich, native and tourist, still possessed, Acapulco, of a clean sea and clear nights, families that loved one another, and first courtships: warm, gentle water at Caleta and Caletilla, wild water at Revolcadero, pounding waves at the Playa de Hornos, silent waves at Puerto Marques, stone cliffs at La Quebrada, recently opened hotels - Las Americas, Club de Pesca - and very old hotels - La Marina, La Quebrada - but sand castles, all of them.

“‘Boleros let us dance very close together.’

“‘I remember.’

“‘In the breeze that comes from the sea …’

“’ We hear the sound of a song. …”

“A vacation spot both daring and tranquil, wavering between its humble past and probable heavenly future. There already vibrated in the air at the airport another Acapulco of big planes, big millionaires, big celebrities. In 1949, not yet. Though the domestic calm of that time could not hide a social chasm deeper than the ravine of La Quebrada itself.

“‘I remember,’ Manuel said with a smile.

“‘It’s true,’ Lucy said.

” The perfume of two bodies in bloom. … Both transformed by the brand new experience of young love… .”

So the old couple walks. “She was grateful for what had happened. The memory of adolescence and young love completely filled the void of separation and frustrated affection. It wasn’t bearable to die without knowing. About death but also about love. Communicate it to anyone, to the first person who passed with the veil of ignorance covering his face and the gloves of the past disguising his hands … Tell these things to the first person who came along, an acquaintance or a stranger. And if it was a stranger, tell it with the astute complicity of that solitary traveler longing, like her, to share in the memory of what never was.”

“Happy Families” is a book to embrace. Its harsher angles startle but do not overwhelm stories that reveal the power of that which is good and true and happy, in a sad sort of way.


By Carlos Fuentes

Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

Random House, $26, 331 pages

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